Elaine (Cunningham) Podgorski Kerr

Thursday, December 31, 2009

January 6, 1924 to December 30, 2009

Future FCC students

Thursday, April 30, 2009

K-I-S-S—Keep it Simple, Stupid!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Monday, March 9, 2009

When life, relationships, finances, world events, and social issues become bewilderingly complex, American seek simple answers and even simpler explanations. In April of 2008, trying to explain the culture of Working Class Americans to a group of much wealthier Californians, then-candidate Obama said:

"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them," Obama said. "And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

We will recall that he was soundly criticized for being elitist and out-of-touch, even effete, for making a comment like that. His California audience understood his complex explanation. Those about whom he was explaining, however, did not. Fox News and right-wing radio, pretended not to understand him so they could be righteously indignant for the disrespected "true Americans" Obama so callously insulted.

Candidate Obama was correct. Small-town America does like it simple. They do cling to guns and god and the blaming of those they see as less powerful than themselves to vent frustrations. They did it then; they are doing it now.

I received the following, copy-and-past-and-send-to-everyone-on-your-email-list, message last week.

What a profound short little paragraph that says it all:

"You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the wealthy out of freedom. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that my dear friend, is about the end of any nation. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it."
Dr. Adrian Rogers, 1931-2005

It certainly does not get any simpler than that—or any more ridiculously illogical.Let's look at it point-by-point.

"You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the wealthy out of freedom."

What initially sounded reasonable is confused nonsense. First is the confusing and undefined use of the word "freedom." How is there a different law that provides freedom based upon socio-economic class? He could be referring to Jim Crow, or Poll Taxes, or institutionalized segregation. But how could that take freedom from wealthy people? It is Orwellian. It's like saying that the Emancipation Proclamation made free white men into slaves by declaring black saves free men. At its best, that statement is foolish, at its worst, it is bigotry. Either way—it's class warfare. What I mean is, it would be class warfare, only that term is reserved for instances where the lower classes cry foul against the upper classes—not the other way around. When the wealthy cry foul against the lower and middle classes, that is just capitalism.
Anyway, who the heck is taking away freedom? That was the PARTIOT act.

"What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving."

I thought this was a central aspect of Christian teaching. The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 7, is where Jesus instructs:

"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. "

Did noteth they covereth this in preacher school? Or was Dr. Rogers sick that day?

"The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else. "

True, that is what governments do. That is how we get the funding necessary to build hospitals and libraries, to hire police and provide for the defense, to support education, to provide clean water . . . the list goes on. Am I missing the point?

Then Dr. Rogers says something really ridiculous:

"When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for."

Seriously? Fifty percent? Fully half of the population of the United States is operating under the assumption that they do not have to work because they will be provided for? And the other 50% is on the brink of joining in? Not one man or woman in this great country is intrinsically motivated? No one finds dignity in work? All of us are one lame excuse away from sloth?

"That, my dear friend, is about the end of any nation. "

I am really not trying to be cute here, but what does that mean? It's one of those lines meant to enrage and frighten rather than be coherent.

You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it."

Adrian Rogers was single-handedly responsible for Southern Baptists' hard turn right in the 1970. And for a man-o-the-cloth, he seems incongruently preoccupied with the accumulation of wealth. "Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24). Another sick day?

Eighty percent of the wealth on this planet is in the hands of about 220 people. That seems like more of a cause for a Southern Baptist preacher to champion than complaining about the wealthy not being wealthy enough.We all know that the motivation for the copying-pasting-and-forwarding of this and other emails like it is in reaction to President Obama's tax proposals.

The ironic thing is, I bet that no one on the mailing list makes over $250K a year. No one who receives, and reads, and forwards this absurd nonsense is going to be negatively affected by Obama's tax plan.

Why are people unaffected by this so willing to shill for the wealthy at the expense of the poor? I guess that is easier than taking the time to think about it. It's even easier to copy-paste-and forward.

Grab a Shovel

Monday, March 2, 2009

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

British Labour party politician, Denis Healey, is credited with the saying, "If you're in a hole, stop digging." Apparently, that advice was not offered to the audience and speakers at last weeks' Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Quite to the contrary, they seemed to be handing out shovels at the door.

The situation has not been this bad for Republicans since Watergate. They are out-of-favor, and out-of-touch. The Democratic-controlled Congress has its best approval ratings in two years, despite GOP obstructionist politics. In fact, approval of Congress recently went up 12 points. Actually, approval of Congressional Democrats went from 18% to 43 while the Congressional Republicans dragged overall Congressional approval ratings down as they went from 23% approval to 19%.

Yet, they keep digging.

Even before CPAC, it was shaping up to be a bad week for the GOP with Gov. Bobby Jindal's embarrassing performance as the GOP's savior-in-waiting. While President Obama was looking like a cross between Reagan and Kennedy, Gov. Jindal looked like Fred Rogers. "Insane, Childish, Disaster," were a few of the kinder terms conservatives and liberals alike used to describe the televised train wreck.

Then CPAC came. What can one say about an event where Joe-the-Plumber was a draw and the party's last presidential candidate did not even attend?

They trotted out the usual line up of suspects. The loudest applause seemed to come from questioning President Obama's citizenship and patriotism. Ron Paul drew loud cheers from half the overly-young crowd while the others sat on their hands. I'm not sure what it means that about 57% CPAC attendees were between 18 and 25. These youngsters ate-it-up when Newt and Huckabee uttered the dreaded word, "Socialism." Have they no new material? Do they know what the word means? I think I just found another use for that shovel.

There was a curious moment when Former Governor Mike Huckabee insisted, "We've got to get out the word that the Republican Party is not just a haven for rich white guys who want to get richer." That will be a tough sell when at the last party convention there were only 36 black delegates out of 2261 total. Even tougher when the winner of the presidential straw poll is a rich white guy who told the police they would have to speak to his wife's jewelry consultant to figure out what exactly were the "between 15 and 20 pieces of jewelry from Mitt Romney's Park City mansion," the Romneys refer to as their "cabin."

Speaking of the Straw Poll, Romney won that last year, too. That didn't work out too well for his presidential campaign. Here are the final results to the question of: "Thinking ahead to 2012 presidential election, who [sic] would you vote for as the next Republican nominee for president?"
Mitt Romney - 20 percent
Bobby Jindal - 14 percent
Ron Paul -13 percent
Sarah Palin - 13 percent
Newt Gingrich -10 percent
Mike Huckabee - 7 percent
Mark Sanford - 4 percent
Rudy Guiliani - 3 percent
Tim Pawlenty - 2 percent
Charlie Crist - 1 percent
Undecided - 9 percent
These data need no comment as they speak for themselves. Newt!!??

The biggest, and I mean biggest, speaker of the conference was Radio-Shock-Jock, Rush Limbaugh, who, according to Rahm Emanuel, is the current leader of the Republican Party.

Curiously, Limbaugh's listener ratings are best during his commercials. Apparently, people get into their cars to go to lunch and the radio is still on the same station as when they drove into work. Once the noonday news and commercials are over, and the drone of The Pretenders, "My City was Gone" comes on, his "listeners" can't get to the dial fast enough. Yet, he is the one repentant Republicans kowtow to when they dare disagree. I guess the CPAC organizers are unaware that Limbaugh is less popular outside their bubble than the despised Jeremiah Wright. He's right down there with Republican congresspersons in the nation's esteem. Yet, they keep on digging.

Clearly playing before a home-town crowd, Limbaugh-the-sophist used his trademark logical fallacies to distort and confuse, to incite and enrage, to defame and demagogue. Obviously in love with the sound of his own voice, he took his 15-minute time slot and magically expanded it to a full 90-minute stem-winder. While saying he hopes the president fails, he counters with, ""I want the country to survive. I want the country to succeed." He called the Democrats' disagreement with George Bush as evidence they "hoped George Bush failed," and dared to draw a moral comparison between his treason and Democrats' disagreement.
He warned his followers in the Congress that cooperating with Democrats to craft legislation is tantamount to being "co-opted by liberals."

Apparently, there is no worse crime in the USA than being a liberal. Of the president, Limbaugh blustered, "It doesn't matter to me what his race is. He's liberal, and that's what matters." He went on, "The racism, the sexism, the bigotry that we are all charged with . . . doesn't exist on our side," he then added, "We want everybody to succeed."

Well, almost everyone—just not the president, or the Congress, or anyone he deems to be liberal. But everyone else.

In tortured reality what would make Orwell jealous, Limbaugh insisted, ""The racism in our culture was exclusively and fully on display in the Democrat primary last year. We didn't ask if he was authentically black." Apparently, I asked, we all asked, if our candidate was black. I must have forgotten, sorry.

But Limbaugh's real objection is the "bastardization of the Constitution that the Obama plans are." He didn't bother to elaborate. That wasn't his goal. He just likes to see the way the flames grow when he adds the gasoline.

Last Saturday, RNC Chairman, Michael Steele said,"Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh's whole thing is entertainment," Steele continued, "Yes, it is incendiary. Yes, it is ugly." Let's see if the RNC Chair Steele now finds it necessary to apologize to the intellectual and philosophical leader of the Republican Party Limbaugh.

Tuesday Update: Steele folded like a lawn chair. He even uses now the job description Rush suggested for him in post-woodshed interviews.

1.7 ¢ for Your Thoughts

Monday, February 23, 2009
Monday, February 23, 2009

We recently celebrated the 200th birthday of our nation's greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. To commemorate the occasion, the US Mint released new pennies with four new designs on the reverse showing important scenes from Lincoln's life. It's a nice sentiment—only it's 100 years too late.
It is now time to eliminate the penny.
As of last March, it cost about 1.7 cents in labor and materials to make a penny. Let's say the average wage in the U.S. is about $17 per hour. If so, it takes about two seconds to earn one cent. Furthermore, if it takes only two seconds extra for a cash transaction that uses a penny, the cost of time wasted in the U.S. per person is about $3.65 annually. The cost for all Americans combined is about $1 billion.

Nothing takes a penny anymore—not gumball machines, not parking meters, not toll booths. Most Americans seeing a penny on the ground will not even bother to pick it up. It will take more than two seconds and they will be losing money. In fact, there has never been a coin in the US worth as little as today's penny.

As of 2007, Due to inflation, a nickel is worth approximately what a penny was as recently as 1972. In 1857, the United States discontinued the half-cent coin as no longer viable, and it had a 2008-equivalent buying power 13¢. That made the new smallest coin the penny, which (do the math) had a 2008-equivalent buying power of 26¢--the lowest denomination coin had the value of more than today's quarter. Now that's a pretty penny!
I'm not trying to be a penny pincher. I think I am being reasonable here—I am only saying, "Let's get rid of the penny." But while we are at it, let's look at the nickel.

Eliminating the penny would create a huge demand for nickels, which are already produced at a loss. The nickel has not been worth a nickel since 1974, and it now costs over a 10¢ to make one. So, maybe we should make the penny the new nickel and stop making nickels. The economist François R. Velde has suggested such a plan and estimated that the change would cause minor monetary inflation of $5.6 billion. That's just a couple-of-year's bonuses for banking and financial executives. Since we are losing as much as $40 million a year in production costs and $1 billion in productivity, we'd be turning a profit in 5 years. I don't expect to see that kind of performance from my TIAA-Cref account anytime soon.

There are sentimental reasons to keep losing $1.04 billion in bad-coin policy each year: we love Lincoln and we owe it to him; if we eliminate the nickel, what happens to Jefferson? As you may suspect, I have answers.

Lincoln is still on the $5-bill. And, if we eliminate the nickel, Lincoln's penny will still survive but be worth 5¢. So, what about Jefferson? He's on the $2-bill. While we are overhauling our currency, let's eliminate the $1-bill (Washington can stay on the quarter), bring back the $2-bill (which costs 4¢ to make) and use the golden $1 coin (which costs about 10¢ to make). Our greatest presidents: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln keep their honored place in American currency and we save money in the federal budget. Everybody's happy; everybody wins. Let's not be "penny wise and pound foolish."

Finally, the dime has not been worth a dime since 1980, and the quarter fell below its face value in 2007. But for now, it's one step at a time. I say we go for it—in for a penny in for a pound! If I have it my way, we'll all be saying, "A penny saved is a nickel earned."

Well, it's just my two cents, but I think I may have just figured out how to get us out of this financial crisis.

Crimes of Olympic Proportion

Monday, February 16, 2009
Monday, February 16, 2009

Readers of this column know that I am no fan of Michael Phelps (Gold Medal Platitudes, Aug 25, 2008). His post-gold-medal interviews where he droned that anybody-can-achieve-anything-if-they-WANT-it-badly-enough sent an irresponsible and discouraging message to the average athletically-mediocre, intellectually unimpressive American. And then the UK-based "News of the World" published a picture of Phelps doing bong hits at a University of South Carolina party. Imagine! A college-age kid smoking pot at a college party. Scandalous? Yes, but for the wrong reasons.

We have been waging a War on Drugs since the Nixon Administration at a cost of almost $20 billion a year, $600 a second. What do we have to show for it? Almost 15 million Americans self-identify as current marijuana smokers. There has been no significant decrease in drug use. There has, however, been a significant increase in prison populations. There are now over 2 million Americans in prison. That is more that 1 out of every 100 adults. We are only 5% of the world's population, but we are 25% of the world's prisoners. Can we be that pathologically criminal?

Freelance writer and mental health practitioner, Christina Gleason, writes, "According to the Department of Justice, over half of all sentenced federal prisoners are drug offenders. Over 80% of the increase in the federal prison population was due to drug convictions between 1985 and 1995. In addition, a 2006 report claimed that 17% of State prisoners and 18% of Federal prisoners committed their crimes in order to obtain drug money. According to a 2001 report, the average sentence for all offenses was 56.8 months. The average sentence for drug offenses was 75.6 months, while the average sentence for violent offenses was 63.0 months."

Someone is arrested for violating a drug law every 17 seconds. Someone is arrested for violating a cannabis law every 38 seconds. And our last three presidents have all used marijuana. In a White House Drug Policy brief, the Bush Administration attempted to put-to-rest the false notion that there are thousands of people in prison for smoking marijuana claiming less than 1% of all prisoners were behind bars for simple marijuana possession. Well, that is still 15,000 people in prison for doing what Phelps is accused of doing. I am not saying we should legalize drugs, but we should stop putting people in prison for using them.

In 2006, there were 829,625 arrested for using marijuana. That is 829,625 criminal records; 829,625 court appearances; 829,625 lawyer fees; 829,625 families in crisis, 829,625 explanations on job applications, 829,625 young lives disrupted or destroyed. And this is all for violating a 1937 law that was racially motivated to harass Southwestern Mexican immigrants and Northeastern big-city black jazz musicians.

High-profile people can bring about high-profile public awareness. Michael Phelps has the opportunity here to do something truly courageous, responsible, and helpful. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott is still considering arresting and prosecuting Phelps for using an illegal substance. Rather than sleepwalking through a series of "I'm young and I made a mistake" public apologies, maybe he can take a stand against the USA's reckless and irresponsible drug policies.

Now is the time to speak up rather than lay low. Phelps has been banned from competition for three months. Kellogg's dropped Phelps from an endorsement contract after the photo surfaced. Ironically, regularly eating the products Phelps endorsed will probably do more physical harm than smoking marijuana. However, Michael Phelps is the kind of guy who moves through life as he moves through water—avoiding friction.

Please, Michael, prove me wrong. Show me you are not just a callow young man with big feet, big hands, and extraordinary lung capacity. Speak up. Stand up. It is time to admit that this 38-year-long War on Drugs is about over, and we lost. It's time to sue for peace. In this war, Michael, you can be a negotiator—or a casualty. It's your choice.

The Scarlet Lette-R

Monday, February 2, 2009
Monday, February 2, 2009

Yesterday, I attended a lecture by Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy at the Center for Excellence in Jackson Missisippi. He was in attendance to talk to a group of Phi Theta Kappa Faculty Scholars. Kennedy was discussing his recent book, Sellout.

Kennedy’s central hypothesis is that all groups suffer from “betrayal anxiety.” We all fear that a close confidant, a friend, a partner, will sell-us-out for personal or financial gain. As a nation, we were founded on betrayal anxiety, according to Kennedy. He pointed out that the only crime specified in the US Constitution is treason: the most extreme form of selling out.
In the course of his lecture, he focused on the book’s most detailed chapter: Clarence Thomas. The case for Thomas’ betrayal is that he abandoned his race by marrying a white woman. He benefitted from affirmative action and then voted against it. Rather than help his race, his conservative political views condemn many black Americans to live in poverty and desperation. Worst of all, the sellout accusations go, he does the white man's bidding.

Kennedy disagrees. While Kennedy admits to disagreeing with Thomas on political issues, he argues that Thomas’ career on the Court does not amount to “selling out.” Kennedy’s careful analysis of Thomas’ opinions shows that he does no one's bidding and certainly not that of Antonin Scalia—as many critics claim. While Kennedy finds much fault with Justice Thomas, he does not find him to be a sellout.

Following the lecture, I went up to Dr. Kennedy and suggested a candidate for sellout: Michael Steele.

Kennedy quickly disagreed with me. Steele is not a traitor to the black race, he insisted. His political views may not toe-the-line for African American concerns, but he finds the man to he honest and consistent—certainly not a classic sellout. Kennedy pointed to Steeles law degree and “certainly, he had a successful law career and did not need to sell out to make a living.”

I pointed out that Steele had not passed the Maryland Bar. His career limped along until he was near insolvency when the Maryland GOP asked him to run for Lt. Governor with (last week’s column topic) Bob Ehrlich. Steel agreed after negotiating $1250-a-week salary. If that does not fit the rhetorical definition of “sellout,” I argued, it certainly meets the literal. Kennedy said he was not aware of those aspects of Steel’s career.

I didn’t even get to metion the Oreo Cookie incident at my alma matter, Morgan State University, that was a blatant attempt at race-baiting.

So now, in a Palinesque move, Steele is the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. One must really ask: What exactly qualifies Steele to lead the GOP? Alex Koppelman of Salon.com summarizes Steele’s not-so-illustrious career. “He graduated from Johns Hopkins University and then got a law degree from Georgetown University, true. That said, though, he initially flunked out of Hopkins, and while he did pass the bar in Pennsylvania, he failed it in Maryland. His record as a businessman wasn't stellar, either. A consulting firm he founded never turned a profit, and was a serious drain on his finances. Shortly after he began his run for lieutenant governor, Steele ran into trouble because of a $25,000 loan his sister had given to his campaign for comptroller that he'd never paid back. Then, there were revelations of an additional $35,000 in personal debt, as well as more than $100,000 he'd taken out of two retirement accounts in order to support his family, leaving a balance of less than $600 at the time the news broke. He suffered further embarrassment over his finances when it was revealed that the Republican Party was paying him a consulting fee of $5,000 a month during his campaign for lieutenant governor.”

Add to that a lack-luster term as Lt. Governor, a failed Senate bid, and a recurring stint as a Fox News Contributor. Not surprisingly, Steele’s first interview after being elected RNC Chair was with Sean Hannity of Fox News—for whom Steele often fills in for on Hannity’s “news” program.
So now, at the head of the conservative party in the United States, we have a man who once, according to a John Dickerson article, “said the R for Republican next to his name was like a ‘scarlet letter.’ He went on to say the GOP-controlled Congress should ‘just shut up and get something done,’ that the Iraq war ‘didn't work’ and ‘we didn't prepare for the peace,’ that the response to Hurricane Katrina was ‘a monumental failure of government.’ He said having his party leader President Bush campaign for him would be a disadvantage.”

On second thought, maybe Steele is not the sellout—maybe the Republican Party is.

It Starts

Monday, January 26, 2009
Monday, January 26, 2009

It didn't take long for the GOP to try and spoil the party. People were still finding their way home from last Tuesday's Inauguration before Limbaugh unpatriotically wished for the complete failure of our new president. Then our former Governor, Robert Ehrlich, told us in Wednesday's Washington Post that we were so "caught up in the historic nature of the moment but blind to the substance of the speech" which, according to Ehrlich is a call for class warfare.

Ehrlich appeared later that evening on the CNN program "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" where David Shuster asked him about the class warfare and how it can be possible for the middle and working class to engage in "war" on the wealthy. Ehrlich replied, in his unfortunate Baltimore accent, that the top 1% wealthiest Americans now pay 40% of the income tax, and that sounds like warfare to him.

Shuster let it go; I can't. We can't. We can no longer let them Limbaugh-logic us. We can no longer let them play fast and loose with the facts, cherry-pick data, and distort reality.
Ehrlich said "income tax." The top 1% pay 40% of "Income" tax. It's not only untrue, it is deviously deceptive and deliberately designed to make middle and low income earners feel sorry for the wealthy and guilty about not holding up our end.

Limbaugh blustered, "And, of course, when there's a tax cut that comes down, it's inevitable that the people who pay taxes get the tax cut. And I forgot the number off the top of my head, but we're up to now something like 38% of all taxes are paid by the top 1%. How can you have a tax cut and those people not get one? And if the purpose for the tax cut is to stimulate the economy the people that pay the taxes have got to get the tax cut.

"The tax cuts . . . reduced tax rates for people in all income brackets but they had a disproportionate effect on people at the very highest levels because they had already been paying a disproportionate share of total federal taxes and in part because stock dividends get a special lower rate."

Disproportionate as compared to what? Feudalism?

Factcheck.org reports "The top 1 percent of all households got 18 percent of all personal income and paid nearly 28 percent of all federal taxes in 2005, according to the Congressional Budget Office."

According to Stephen Moore of The American, the wealthiest 1% of the population earn 19% of the income but pay 37 percent of the income tax. The top 10 percent pay 68 percent of the tab. Meanwhile, the bottom 50 percent—those below the median income level—now earn 13 percent of the income but pay just 3 percent of the taxes. These are proportions of the income tax alone and don't include payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare.

That's right. But notice how Moore refers to "19% of the income but pay 37 percent of the income tax. " There are other taxes besides "income tax." The wealthy know this all-too-well. Actually, CBO calculates that the top 1 percent paid only 27.6% percent of all federal taxes.
One big tax that lower and middle income earners pay is Social Security—that and Medicare/Medicaid. Most of us pay 6.2% on our earnings for Social Security and 1.45% on our earnings for Medicare. However, that is only for the first $102,000 of yearly earnings. That means most of us (me) pay a tax of 6.2% on every dime we earn while the wealthy get a 6.2% tax cut for every dime beyond $102,000. And for the top 1%, that goes FAR beyond $102,000.
The CBO states that the top 1% pay 4% of those taxes. I think they can afford it. But, we are fighting on their ground and according to their rules. We should be looking at this differently.

Here is how we should be looking at this. Let's take it a-step-at-a-time:

  • America's 112 million families had combined wealth of $50.3 trillion in 2004.
  • When those families are ranked by the size of their wealth, however, the top 1% alone held $16.8 trillion in wealth.
  • That is more than a third of the United States' total wealth
  • It is also more than the $15.3 trillion held by the bottom 90% of U.S. families.
  • The top 1% had average wealth of $15 million per family in contrast to the $22,800 average wealth of the least wealthy 50% of families or the $313,500 in wealth for families ranked between 50% and 90%.

You got that? According to Ehrlich and Limbaugh, we are supposed to feel sorry for and grateful to the top 1% who have an average family income of 15-million-dollars-a-year!

Put another way, does it seem fair that 5% of the people have 95% of the wealth, yet pay only 50% of the taxes? Yet, 95% of the people live on 5% of the wealth and have to come up with the other 50%.

Our new President said in his inaugural address that we "will restore science to its rightful place." After a prolonged period of anti-intellectualism in the United States, we can no longer let these conservative sophists frame the argument, set the rules for discourse, and control the language.

Let's start with this nonsense about an unfair tax burden on the obscenely wealthy.

Inauguration Photos

Friday, January 23, 2009
Richard being Richard

Ken and Richard on the Mall

So close . . .but yet so far away.

Joe takes the oath on the Jumbotron.

The crowd in front of me.

Ken and Richard on the MARC train with commemorative train tickets in hand

My view. My "Silver" ticket unusable because of long lines and too few checkpoints, I headed to the mall. You can see the Capitol Dome above the screen

Closer to what my view "would have been" had I been able to use my ticket.

The view behind me. Notice the Washington Monument in the background.
Snipers on the Museam of Natural History

Charley in the crowd with the Smithsonian Castle behind.

Charley and Richard enjoying a beer and watching the parade from inside a restaurant.

Lo que piensan (What they think)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

One advantage of learning a second language is that you can find out what people think—not what the English-language newspapers tell you they think, but what the people actually tell you they think. I returned Sunday from three weeks in Buenos Aires. I visited with old friends and made new friends. Inevitable, the conversation would turn to politics.
There are two main topics to these conversations: George Bush and Barack Obama.
It is not easy to explain George Bush. Argentines are genuinely confused as to how we could have elected George Bush. They are completely baffled as to how we re-elected him. As completely as my Spanish skills allowed, I explained the questionable voting in Florida and the Gore v. Bush Supreme Court decision. That satisfied most as to the question of the first time, but how did it happen twice? I told them he took advantage of Americans' fear. The landlady of the apartment I was renting replied that in re-electing him, we made the world have fear. The words "loco" and "Diablo" often came up when talking about Bush.
Argentines think the current world financial crisis rests at Bush's feet as well. Their Peso has fallen from 3:1 against the Dollar to 3.5:1 while they have seen inflation of 30% a year. As the world's second-largest exporter of corn and soy (behind the US) the world-wide recession has seen exports drop. A prolonged drought has made a suffering agri-conomy worse with dried up fields and 300,000 dead beef cattle. The failure of huge sectors of the US financial system could not have come at a worse time.
A friend, a retired Argentine diplomat, was surprised when I told him how much I disliked the president and asked me why. I told him of Karl Rove's push polling in South Carolina that derailed McCain's 2000 bid and the arm's length endorsement of T. Boone Pickens's "Swift Boating" of Kerry's 2004 presidential candidacy. I went on with claiming mandates he did not have, eroding citizens' rights, his Oedipal-complex-inspired Iraq war financed by Chinese debt while giving tax cuts to the wealthy. At the end of my tirade, he responded, "We didn't know any of that."
At a dinner-gathering of two families in the home of another friend, I was asked if Bush has dyslexia. "Can he read?" was how bluntly they put it. These people cannot speak English, yet they got the sense that our president has a learning disability.
The Argentine impression of Barack Obama was also surprising. When I arrived at the airport and the driver was loading my luggage, he saw my "Educators for Obama" pin on my carry on. He pointed to it and said, "El Salvador." My retired diplomat friend, however, said, "I think he is a demagogue."
Argentines have a strong sense that there is racial tension in the USA. A waiter in the café said, "But many Americans don't like Obama." I asked him why he thought that and he stroked his cheek and said, "The color of his skin." He was not the only one who asked about American racial bigotry. I tried to assure them that the issue of race has gotten better in the USA, and it is not the problem it once was. I am not sure they believed me.
Many, many Argentines asked if I was afraid that Obama will be assassinated. I told them that we can't worry about that. I told them that Americans are tired of being afraid; that our fear has not helped us in these past seven years. I told them that whatever happens, Barack Obama's election says good things about the United States. "Es un buen día para los Estados Unidos," I said. A man I spoke with in the little neighborhood restaurant, El Rincon, replied, "El tiempo lo dirá."
"Time will tell."

Amigo, ¿Puedes Darme Diez Centavos? (Buddy, can you spare a dime)

Monday, January 12, 2009
The canary in the coal mine for the US economy is the image of men and women standing on street corners selling pencils and apples on the street corner. That, along with Yip Harburg, and Jay Gorney’s song, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” are icons of the Great Depression.

Last week, an Argentine business associate of mine told me as we discussed our respective economic crises, “The best day in Argentina is not as good as the worst day in the United States.” I politely nodded and dismissed it as hyperbole, but then gave it some thought.

In the last big American recession of the 1980s, we saw the emergence of squeegee men and “Will Work For Food” written on cardboard signs, and stoplight beggars. On the streets of Buenos Aires, it is common to see the modern-day equivalent. Outside the grocery store, a young woman sells cherries for $2.99 a quarter kilo. Inside, the same sell for $3.29. A few blocks later, there are the same cherries for the same price on a different corner with a different woman. On the bus, a man gets on and speaks to the driver before going into his sales pitch about an excellent quality pen with a light on its cap for two pesos, about sixty cents. He gets off after accommodating all takers only to be replaced by a man selling sewing kits for AR$5. In the subway, an old woman sits near the entrance selling small packets of facial tissue for a peso.

We see unemployment figure headlines that tell us the rate is the highest in four years, then ten years, and now sixteen years. It will not be long before we see it reach Reagan’s 1982 rate of 10+%--the highest since the Great Depression. Argentina’s unemployment rate now stands at about 8.1%. However, those working in the “informal economy” have an unemployment rate of 15%. The unemployment rate in the US was 7.2% as of December 2008.

Buenos Aires is a city with an important café/restaurant culture. Families, even those of modest means, eat in a restaurant every week. An article in La Nacion last week told of 300 restaurants closing in Buenos Aires in recent months because of falling revenues and rising rents.

After the 2001 economic crisis, where the average Argentine lost 2/3 of his wealth, unemployment in Argentina reached US Great Depression numbers. Desperate for work, men once employed as car mechanics and laborers resorted to sorting through the garbage to scavenge for any trash of recyclable value. They became known as Los Cartoneros, the Cardboard Collectors. This army of over 100,000 scavengers descended upon the wealthier neighborhoods in a government-supplied train that the locals called, El Tren Fantasma—The Ghost Train. This was because the people ignored them as they went about their work; like ghosts, they were invisible to the world.

Cartoneros now have uniforms and official status. Their numbers have dropped to about 20,000. They have also had the serendipitous effect of reducing Buenos Aires landfill by 25% a day. The Ghost Train has been replaced by busses and trucks located at various pick-up locations.

Curiously, if one were to be blindfolded and dropped into the center of Argentina, he would, upon regaining sight, swear he was in some agricultural part of the USA. Argentina is, like the USA, a country of European immigrants. In the years just before WWII, it had the 4th highest standard of living in the world. Average wages and middle class wealth were above that of even the USA and most of Europe. Argentina’s constitution is modeled so closely to the Constitution of the United States that it could be considered plagiarism.

According to American lore, the “canary in the coalmine” served as an early warning for miners. As long as the canary kept singing, it was OK to keep on doing what we were doing. Very sensitive to methane and carbon dioxide, a dead canary signaled the need for immediate action. For the United States, perhaps the canary is Argentina.

The Ego has Landed

Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

There is nothing quite as effective as traveling to help take the focus off one's own problems. We in the USA are fascinated with ourselves and our situation to the almost-complete exclusion of the remainder of the world. Traveling abroad helps us remember that it's a big world out there and other people live in it. That is not to say that the USA is not important, but there are only 3 of us for every 5,000 people on this planet. We should try and keep that in perspective.

As an American, I have to work pretty hard to overcome my own egocentrism. For example, when I return to a place a have not seen in a while, I expect it to be the same as when I left it—frozen in time like the last snapshot of the last visit.

I returned last week to Buenos Aires for the first time in 18 months. I had expected to find it just as I had left it. I had a Brigadoon-like fantasy that this city and surrounding environs of 12 million people would begin to sleep as my plane left the runway only to reawaken upon my return. Well, things changed.

While in the USA, we have been stung with inflation, Argentines have been mugged. Eighteen months ago, I enjoyed a strong dollar and low prices. I returned to a slightly stronger dollar and significantly higher prices. Even the American dollar has not kept up with Argentine inflation. The American dollar (US$) had about the same value in the USA as the Argentine peso (AR$). A moderate family income in both countries is $50,000. In 2007, US$1.00 was about AR$3.10. So, my dollars went three times as far. Today, the US$1 is worth AR$3.45. But is has hardly kept pace with Argentine prices.

I went to Balcaarce, my favorite café, and reacquainted myself with my old friend, Leo. I order my usual breakfast that once cost AR$6.90. When Leo brought the check, he warned me, "Es mas." It was more, now AR$10.90. My 12% stronger dollar did not keep pace with the 63% increase in the cost of an Argentine breakfast.

Prices for almost everything have gone up. A bus ride that cost AR$.80 now costs $AR1.00 and, it was just reported today, it will go up to AR$1.20. A coin shortage will only complicate that situation. Gasoline in the US has fallen to below $2.00 a gallon while here is has risen to over AR$4.00—and Argentina does not import oil.
Many businesses in my adopted barrio of Recoleta have closed and there are more empty storefronts that there were in June of 2007. Almost all restaurants now charge a cubierto—cover charge—of between AR$3 and 5. That keeps them from having to change the prices on menu items. Others have begun to put menu prices in pencil. A bottle beer that cost AR$8.00 in a restaurant in 2007, now costs AR$14.00. A load of laundry was AR$7.00 when we arrived in 2007, but soon went up to AR$9.00. It is now AR$11.00.

I can only imagine what would happen in the USA if our standard of living saw increases this large this fast. The only thing that has seen this level of increase in the USA is gasoline—and that has since gone down.

To be fair, many of these prices had not risen in seven years since the Argentine Financial Crisis peaked in 2001. The Kirchner administration (first Nestor and now Christina) had produced an economic miracle and Argentina's economy boomed. But so did inflation. Government economists cherry-pick data to announce an "official" inflation rate of under 10%, but independent data reveal it is closer to 20% a year. From what I have seen, it would cost me 30% more to enjoy the same standard of living today that I had in my six months here in 2007.

We can't freeze time, and we can't keep things from changing. Even if we could, we'd never know the perfect moment to hold.

When I return to the USA in two more weeks, I'll find my life exactly as I left it. If I stayed here for another 18 months, I'd also return to pretty much the same financial, social, political situation. I can't say the same for Argentina. We Americans are blessed with a remarkably stable and incredibly wealthy country. I seem to need to leave it to appreciate it, sometimes.

We hereby resolve

Monday, December 29, 2008
Monday, December 29, 2008

Sources place the origin of the New Year's Resolutions tradition to 153 B.C. Rome. The god, Janus, for whom the first moth of the year was named, was placed at the head of the calendar. With his two faces, Janus looked back at the past and forward to the future. This gave him incredible insight into what went poorly and how to avoid it in the future.

Janus became the ancient symbol for year-ending resolutions as Romans looked for forgiveness and exchanged gifts before the beginning of each year. Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, otherwise known as the Roman Emperor Constantine, declared Christianity as the official religion of Rome with the Edict of Milan in 313, these traditions began their transformation for pagan to Christian.

At this time each year, we take up this ancient custom as we resolve to improve ourselves. Steven Shapiro, Author, Innovation Consultant and Speaker, found
· 34% set resolutions related to money
· 38% set resolutions related to weight
· 47% set resolutions related to self-improvement or education
· 31% set resolutions related to relationships

We are in a time of crisis in the United States. There is a claim, perhaps apocryphal, that the Chinese character for "crisis" is the same as the one for "opportunity." I don't know if it's true, but it's an intriguing concept. Perhaps this year it should be a national effort to resolve as a population to set to use this crisis as an opportunity and resolve to make ourselves a better people.

The United States Federal Government has an Office of Citizen Services and Communications. Curiously, they publish a list of the ten most popular New Year's Resolutions. Let's take a look at each and see how it applies to us as a nation.

#1. Lose Weight
We are at the apex of a 20-year trend in becoming an obese population. The surgeon general estimates it costs over half-a-trillion dollars in increased medical costs to address our poor diets and over eating. We evolved to be a hunter-gatherer species that eats lean meats and fruits and vegetables—not corn-fed beef and white bread. Actually, grain should not even be part of our diet. Corn syrup is the crack cocaine of the food industry. We—you and I—subsidize the corn industry to the tune of $5 billion a year to find more ways to introduce more corn into our diet. Subsidies to farmers, almost $20 billion a year, are out-of-synch with the government created food pyramid. In fact, if we all followed it, there would not be enough fruit and vegetables for everyone to eat a healthy diet.

#2. Managing Debt
The average American household has $10,000 in credit card debt. We don't have to repeat the foreclosure crisis, bailouts, the federal deficit . . . we all know we are in trouble here. I have three words for all of us, "pay-with-cash." When considering "paper or plastic," Andrew Beattie, of Investopedia, insists, "Cash is almost always the better choice." That 1950's relic, layaway, is making a comeback, and we should all take a hint. If we can't pay for it, and we don't absolutely need it, we should not buy it.

#3. Save Money
Seventy percent of us live paycheck-to-paycheck. That's really stupid. Americans save an average of $392 a year—that's three-hundred-and- ninety-two dollars. Consumer debt is at $2.5 trillion and, according to the Housing Bubble, "As of 2008, the average household debt is $117,951 and this includes credit cards, installment loans, home equity loans, and mortgages." This is not sustainable.

#4 Get a Better Job
Good luck with this one. We should probably resolve to "keep a job" in 2009. Nonfarm payroll employment fell sharply (-533,000) last November, and the unemployment rate rose from 6.5 to 6.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor. Obama hopes to generate 2 million new jobs with his $210 billion jobs program. However, that will just get us back to where we were at the start of 2008.

#5. Get Fit
There is something that separates us middle-agers from our younger-agers. When we are out of shape, we buy bigger clothes and wear things to hide the fact that we are fat. Kids no longer share that shame. Whereas we wanted a six pack the past few years we have seen the "muffin top" become a fashion.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends a 30 minute walk five-days-a-week and two sessions-a-week of strength training. However, the Wall Street Journal tells us that fewer that 16% of us are physically active on any given day according to a map showing that the most active American live on the west coast, in Alaska, and Hawaii. We all saw the pictures of Barack Obama shirtless on a Hawaiian beach. That should inspire us.

#6. Eat Right
Bottom line—we eat too much. Second bottom line—we eat the wrong stuff. We are eating ourselves to death. We gotta stop that.

#7. Get a Better Education
We lag behind most of the developed world in education. According to a CNN report, "The total cost of going to a private four-year college rose to $34,132 on average for the 2008-09 academic year. In-state students at public four-year schools paid an average of $14,333 for the current school year, according to the College Board, a non-profit association of more than 5,400 schools, colleges and universities. That's an increase of 5.7% from the previous year." What makes it worse is that the cost of a college education has risen at about 7% a year while household incomes for the poorest Americans—who need access to higher education the most—rose at only 3%. As an Illinois senator, Barack Obama worked to address this issue. Let's hope he is able to affect change on a greater scale as president.

#8. Drink Less Alcohol
I have a better idea: do less cocaine. We need to communicate the message that doing cocaine is unpatriotic. Much of the money spent by Americans on cocaine leads t a destabilization of our international neighbors and finds its way into the hands of terrorists. We need to resolve to look at the War on Drugs differently. Over $10 billion-a-year has been spent and we have made no progress except to put over two-million Americans in prison. Half of all prisoners are behind bars for drugs. We need a rational drug policy that addresses the real issues of poverty, opportunity, and access. Drugs are not the problem—they are the symptom.

#9. Quit Smoking Now
We are actually keeping this resolution pretty well. About one-in-five Americans now smoke, down from 28% a decade ago. Smoking peaked in 1954 with about half of Americans smoking. Sadly, while older Americans are quitting, younger Americans are taking up the habit. I guess they need something to go with those muffin tops.

#10. Reduce Stress Overall
If our diet is not killing us, stress is. Two-thirds of Americans seek help for stress—and that is just those who seek it out. Fifty-four percent of us say it is a real concern. We have a tendency to live to work in this country. We put our jobs over our lives and families. We should resolve this year to work to live. It is becoming increasingly obvious that our employers do not share the same level of commitment and obligation to us that we have historically felt toward them. We do not owe them our lives, just an honest day's work.

Bonus Resolution

#11. Volunteer to Help Others
A lot of research has been done on happiness these past few years. What it found was that more money does not bring more happiness. More things, we have found, just bring more debt. So what will make us happy? Doing things for others. We face a few tough years. There is much to be done. Let's all resolve to do things for others this year.

When 9/11 happened, we were all eager and waiting to help. We would have done anything President Bush asked of us. Anything. He asked us to shop. Well, we see where that got us.
In a few weeks, President Barack Obama is going to ask us to do something to get the country healthy again. Let's listen. Let's heed the call. Let's all pitch in and work without expectation of personal gain. Research shows it will make us happier. Let's all resolve to be happy.

Let's drink a cup of kindness. Happy New Year.

A Visit from St. Nick (of time!)

Monday, December 22, 2008

‘Twas the end of the year, when all through the nation
The people were stirring with mild trepidation.
Saddam had been hanged by the Sunnis with care,
But outside the Greenzone, fear still hangs in the air.
Cuba’s Castro fell ill, and took to his bed,
But his brother Raul took over as head.
Will 700 billion, big banks got a big bailout,
And execs still got big bonuses—can’t figure that one out.
The boys from Detroit wanted some of that action.
They tried and they tried, but got no satisfaction.
The in came George Bush, dipping into his stash.
And after some scolding, came across with the cash.
To every reporter Bush will give interview,
As Karl Rove tries to make Bush’s image a-new.
And then what should assault the membrane of my ear?
Dick Chaney as well, trying to remake his career.
And they talked and they talked and they never stopped trying.
But except for Fox News—no one was buying.
Then more rapid than light speed, Right-Wing Radio came.
When Karl Rove whistles, the moths circle the flame.
Come on Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Coulter, Ingram, and Hannity.
Will you give it a rest? For the sake of humanity!
For the past 30 years, we heard all your denying.
Yet we elected Obama despite all of your lying.
As Bush leave District, there are few who will cry.
He’s been such an obstacle—time to bid him goodbye.
Soon into the Whitehouse, the Obamas will move,
With those cute little girls and a puppy dog, too.
Things are bound to get better, and for those who need proof,
Take a look at the Cabinet he’s put under that roof.
With Democrats controlling both Congressional Houses,
Let’s hope they turn out to be lions, not mouses.
‘Cause in Russia we’ve still got Medvedev and Putin.
We’ve got to make sure they don’t want to start shootin’.
In North Korea, Kim Jong Il is now back.
One thing is for sure—that dude is Whack!
Hugo Chavez is holding on in Venezuela.
He don’t like us much, and he’s the first one to tell ya.
We still have a few friends, like most of West Europe
Now that President Cowboy is headed back to his stirrups.
Still the stump of his legacy sticks in our teeth.
It will take quite a while for that to get some relief.
And Right here at home, we’ve still got lots of trouble:
A national debt we’ve seen double . . .and double,
Two million jobs we’ve lost in just one year,
With more layoffs, plant closings, and foreclosure fear.
With a wink of her eye, Sarah Palin looms large,
But her daughter’s soon Mom-in-law faces felony drug charge.
The Republican Party is in total despair
That will take several decades to begin to repair.
So we place all our hopes in the man we just chose,
We can’t expect too much too soon, I suppose.
All our shoulders to the wheel and in total support,
In no time, there will be some good news to report.
So now let me exclaim, as I’m ceasing to write,
Merry Christmas to all . . . may we all be alright.

"Time" for a Change?

Monday, December 15, 2008
"Time" for a Change?

As a boy, I dreamed of time travel—anywhere, anyplace, anytime had to be better. HG Wells provided me with the details and imagined for me the possibility of moving backward and forward to escape the mediocrity and tedium of my adolescence.
I now believe that it is only practical to move backward in time. Our world is moving at such a bewildering pace that the jobs we have today are often not there tomorrow. The careers college kids are studying for may not exist when they are finished preparing for them. A middle-aged, middle American from 2008 suddenly placed in 2033 would be lost. Without the gradual exposure to changes in technology and culture, he or she would be of little use in a future America. No, we can only go back.

In the past, our 21st Century knowledge and skills would serve us well. In the past, we could be pretty darned impressive.

Gregg Easterbrook, in his 2004 book, The Progress Paradox, challenges his readers to participate in a thought experiment:

"If the means existed, would you exchange places with a typical person living in any year before your birth? Exchange places permanently—not, say, observe the Battle of Hastings and then rematerialize in the present. You could pick the year and place in the past, but you could not specify trading places with someone specific like Catherine the Great or Leonardo da Vinci, and you could not specify that you would be a lord or lady or hold similar advantage. In this deal, you'd be transported back to live out the rest of your life as an ordinary person."

I'll let you think about that for a bit . . .

You probably came up with a favorite historical period and event you wanted to witness, a golden age in a special place where life was less complicated and more pure. The more you think, the greater the detail you begin to fill in. You begin to realize what you'd have to give up. You'll soon come to realize that the sacrifice would be too dear. Almost all of us would choose to stay right where and when we are.

Easterbrook reminds us, "A century ago, the rich lived in heated houses, rode in carriages, traveled the world, enjoyed unlimited food and wine, had access to physicians, attained college educations, attended the theater for entertainment, and if engaged in gainful work, did so in a comfortable office."

Wait a minute. That sounds like me. It probably sounds like you, too. Why would I go back a hundred years to an unheated farm house wondering about the next meal and rarely having access to a doctor? I'd have to walk everywhere I wanted to go—which would have been fewer than 50 miles from the place of my birth for my entire life—and work really hard every day. I'd be lucky to live to 50, keep my teeth, have indoor plumbing, or complete high school.

Things in the United States are pretty bad right now, the worst many of us have experienced or can remember—and they are likely to get worse before they get better. UCLA's Anderson School of Management reports that over 2 million of us lost our jobs in 2008. The Gallup organization reports that more of us are worried about our standard of living than were in the 1991 recession. The current Secretary of the Treasury has no clue what to do with the $700 billion he asked for, and the Big Three auto makers are circling the drain. However, since the election of Barack Obama, those thinking optimistically about our country have risen by 20%--and he has yet to take office.

So, I wouldn't trade my typical American existence for typical existence with anyone, or any time, or anyplace. I'll stay right where I am, and have confidence in us to get things right again. For those of you still entertaining the idea of time transplantation, I have two words . . . modern dentistry.